Recently, the Catholic Church has seen a new clerical abuse scandal in Ireland, and the forced laicization of the founder of a prominent youth ministry for gross sexual misconduct. Pope Benedict has achieved many good things, but there is still much open dissent against him, especially in regards to the liturgy. Such things remind us, at the beginning of Lent, that whatever personal challenges we face in the keeping of the holy season, we must also fast and pray for the good of the entire Church. This past Ash Wednesday, while going through some of the personal effects of my parents, I came across a letter which my father wrote to my mother almost half a century ago: a useful reminder, to me at least, that in a certain way, every age in the Church’s earthly life is an age of crisis, but “our labor is not in vain in the Lord.”
In the spring of 1965, my father had just turned 23, and was finishing his last semester of college; having spent a lot of his time at a California college on trips to Mexico (by his own admission), he became one of the original five-year planners. My mother, six months younger than he, had already graduated from the same school and returned to her native New York, where she was working as secretary to the associate publisher of National Review. Although it is not a religious magazine per se, National Review’s founder was one of the most prominent Catholic laymen in America, William F. Buckley, and many other famous Catholic intellectuals were regular contributors. My mother’s immediate boss, James P. McFadden would later found both the Human Life Review, and the newsletter Catholic Eye.
That same year, my mother helped put together a supplement to the magazine, a collection of essays called “What in the name of God is going on in the Catholic Church?”, including contributions by novelist Evelyn Waugh, historian Fr. Marvin O’Connell, and Garry Wills. In an essay called “Open Season On the Church?”, NR’s religion editor Will Herberg, a conservative Jew, correctly predicted that ‘aggiornamento’ would soon lead to what we now call ‘the hermeneutic of rupture,’ well before the close of Vatican II. “Under cover of ‘aggiornamento’, a fronde (i.e. a civil war) has been opened up against the Church.” And, after severe criticism of some of NR’s own writings on then-current Church events, he adds, “I will not permit myself to comment on Ramparts, another ‘Catholic’ journal practicing aggiornamento. Anti-clerical snarling and leftist incitement constitute the bulk of the offerings of this sensation-mongering Liberal magazine. And all in the name of aggiornamento!”
The religion editor was not the only person on the NR staff who found the contents of Ramparts distressing. At some point, my mother voiced some rather serious distress over the situation in the Church generally, and something in Ramparts particularly, to my father. I can’t tell from my father’s response whether it was in a letter or a phone conversation, but it clearly made him think that she was in a bad way, and in need of some encouragement. (And dig the hipster vocab. from 1960’s!)
I commence this commentary upon your latest hang-up, which is this ‘movement’ which is taking place within Holy Mother the Church. You’ve mentioned to me how shook up you are, and … things about joining some eastern rite and all that. (referring to earlier rebels in the Church like Arius as “fatheads”:) Remember, the cool ones have been those who knew that in spite of all that they saw around them, and what was happening within the Church, their first concern was to save their immortal souls; they worked within the Church. … One must be cool in these things and remember that on many occasions Christ has allowed the devil and his armies to turn the Church into chaos and turmoil, and that every time She has come out refreshed, rejuvenated, and as vital as Her Founder intended Her to be. You must remember that these factions, these creeping elements of fungus and disease have always been in the Church, and that every time they have lost in the end. Let them preach that we are to look upon Christ as a ‘buddy’, as you would say, but should that matter when you know that He isn’t? Look to yourself and not to them … So who or what is Ramparts ? (They) purport to represent the Church. Don’t tell me that you’ve fallen prey to the press and have believed them when they say that Ramparts or anyone else speaks for the Church. Let them yell, let them scream; they speak for no-one, and they speak to no-one. All they do is impress. They do not impress Protestants. They do not impress Catholic laymen. They only impress themselves and those like themselves…who are on newspapers and other such tripe… Just remember that all this will pass and the Church will emerge triumphant.
At the time these words were written, the ‘hermeneutic of rupture’ was just getting into full swing. My mother’s parish had its first Mass celebrated partially in English; as she and my grandmother told me many times, most of the congregation left the church in tears. When my parents were married in 1968, they were unable to find a priest who would say any of their wedding Mass in Latin; years later, they were both deeply annoyed to learn (from me) that there was absolutely no prohibition, then or now, on saying any or all of the Mass in Latin. They moved to my father’s home town, Providence, R.I., where they lived for the rest of their lives. Our parish, Holy Name, practiced the ‘hermeneutic of continuity’ long before that phrase entered the common parlance of Catholic life. For many years, there was a Sunday Mass celebrated in Latin in the modern Roman rite with an excellent choir; in 1994, this was changed over to the usus antiquior. For my mother especially, one of the greatest joys of her life was the ability to once again regularly attend the liturgy she had known in her youth; time and again she told me that she never thought she would see the day. Both of my parents’ funerals were celebrated there in the traditional rite; so many of our family and friends told me how strongly moved they were by the beautiful music of the youthful and highly talented choir.
In 1975, as my father predicted, Ramparts magazine ceased publication.